Rob Feeney, promoting the importance of fire sprinklers in front of TV media
In his previous post, Rob Feeney painstakingly describes his nightmares and realities soon after being severely injured from The Station Nightclub Fire, which killed 100 people, including his fiancée, Donna Mitchell. In his final installment for the Fire Sprinkler Initiative, Feeney chronicles how he found purpose as a burn survivor and became an unlikely champion for fire sprinklers.
Following The Station fire, I had very few plans except to see Donna’s two daughters through high school. After that, I really didn’t care what happened to me.
I struggled with my life’s purpose and self-sabotaged my own progress. I didn’t fully know how to take care of myself. I did go out—mostly to bars, mostly to see friend’s bands. I talked to everyone I could—friends, bartenders, strangers—but my pressure garments on my hands and my facial burns were still distinguishable and drew questions. It wasn’t hard to talk to people about what happened to me, but it was sometimes hard to hear them say “I almost went there that night” in response. It took years to realize posttraumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt had taken control of my life.
Along with the many questions I had about my own future, I had questions about The Station fire. I followed the investigation as closely as I could. I understood the factors that made this fire the nation’s fourth deadliest nightclub fire. What I didn’t understand was why the building and countless buildings across the country are so unsafe and allowed to remain open for business. The only answers I got were from my attorney and newspapers. Why didn’t the nightclub have fire sprinklers? I naively assumed that the majority of buildings I frequented were protected by them.
In 2006, I attended an educational event hosted by then Pleasantville, Tennessee, Fire Chief Shane Ray (now President of the National Fire Sprinkler Association) and Vickie Pritchett of Common Voices, an advocacy coalition promoting fire safety. They discussed fire sprinklers. They spoke about the costs of installing sprinklers in new construction and retrofitting them into older buildings, both residential and commercial. Chief Ray spoke about my fire. He said fire sprinklers would have made a difference. They would have saved lives, probably every life. One hundred of them.
I still had a lot of anger and sadness inside of me. I also had a desire to make sure another fire like The Station didn’t happen again and to tell my story. I found a new fight within me but I needed help finding my voice.
I was introduced to an organization called the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. It’s the largest national peer support organization for burn survivors, their families, healthcare professionals, and fire service and industry personnel. In September 2003, I attended its annual conference, the World Burn Congress, in Cleveland, Ohio. I was extremely overwhelmed and didn’t talk to many people the first couple of days. However, I listened to keynote speakers who battled through adversities and beat the odds to live a life of happiness.
That year I also met Amy Acton, Phoenix’s executive director. At next year’s World Burn, she remembered me. She asked if I would be available for local media interviews. She also invited me to attend a special training by media guru Brad Phillips to develop my advocacy skills. Amy then asked me to join her at a live burn/sprinkler demonstration and then a local TV show to discuss the Phoenix Society and fire sprinklers. I was enjoying what little I was doing, even though I didn’t know where it was leading.
In 2010, I got a call from Vickie Pritchett, who asked me if I would head to Tennessee to testify in front of the Chattanooga City Council to get a bylaw passed requiring fire sprinklers in the city’s nightclubs. The measure was voted down on two previous attempts and was up for its third and final try. I wrote a speech and handed out copies to each of the nine council members. I was about as nervous as I had ever been as I sat and listened to both sides of the sprinkler fight. Then a lawyer for some of the club owners against sprinklers started talking about The Station fire and many untruths about what occurred that night. One councilman said “The Station Nightclub Fire was a Rhode Island problem, not a Tennessee problem.” I now wanted to talk.
I was given three minutes to speak. During that time, I told them that three minutes was all it took to kill 96 of the 100 people in that fire. The bylaw passed by one vote. The councilman who had the deciding vote met me in the hallway to thank me for my testimony and let me know that I had changed his vote. Following the hearing, the mayor of Chattanooga invited us to his office and thanked me for helping him protect the people in his city.
I now realized what Amy Acton had in mind for me. I was using my voice and my story for a greater cause. I was a fire sprinkler advocate. Reliving my story was not only helping me emotionally, but was also helping enact changes in fire safety. I have since been invited to other speaking engagements for the Phoenix Society, Common Voices, and Vision 20/20—all groups championing for the installation of fire sprinklers. In 2013, I was honored to be the second recipient of the Phoenix Society’s Advocacy Award at World Burn Congress in Providence, RI.
Being an advocate led me to alter how I lived my life. It created a confidence I had been missing. I was able to find love again, get married, start a family, and (to the surprise of many people) enter the fire service.
I am one voice with one story trying to speak for Donna and the others who lost their voice in The Station fire. Raising awareness and advocating for new sprinkler laws has largely been an uphill battle. Sometimes it seems like an unnecessary battle because we’re talking about common sense. We’ve made definite footprints in the sand on the fire sprinkler issue but footprints in the sand can be washed away over time if they’re not walked over again and again. So, we walk again. We talk again. We keep going until our footprints are no longer in the sand, but are in concrete—to stay for good.
Rob Feeney recently became a call firefighter with the Onset Fire Department in Massachusetts and advocates for fire sprinklers and fire safety issues nationwide for the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors and Common Voices. The Phoenix Society now offers online advocacy training instructing others how to use their voice to affect change.
We want to hear from you! It's easy to comment on posts: just look for the login link above to login or register for your free account on Xchange. Xchange is more than a blog; it's an online community that connects you with peers worldwide and directly with NFPA staff. Get involved today!